America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

This moment is heartbreaking. Again. It is emotionally exhausting. Again. It is enraging to watch yet another black body plead not to be executed in public. Again.

There is nothing more representative of the state of and abuse of power in America than the scene that transpired in Washington, D.C. on Monday night: After watching U.S. cities erupt for days with pain and grief in response the police murder of George Floyd, President Donald Trump emerged from his White House bunker to forcibly remove clergy and tear-gas Black Lives Matter protesters — all in order to pose with a Bible in front of D.C.’s St. John’s Church. The Episcopal diocese oversees the 1815 structure and has expressed outrage at the action. It’s important to understand his intentions, as the president did all of this to marshal the physical architectural symbolism of the church to buttress his claims of moral, political, and racial authority. It was an escalation on the highest level, from the highest office.

For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.

This moment, like so many others, rose out of the state-sanctioned murder of black people. It emerged from the killing of George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before that, Breonna Taylor, before that Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It grew out of the specter of impending violence that follows black and brown people daily. And it grew out of the apathy of this nation toward a black community so profoundly sickened by our built environment that a global pandemic disproportionately impacts us.

Rebellion is a response to a prolonged dehumanization of a people unwilling to be participants in their own demise; it is often the soft power of the built environment that provides the preconditions for that dehumanization and the atrocities that follow.

Right now, our obligation to each other, to the built environment, and in solidarity with black lives is to hold all complicit actors in these systems accountable. The profession of architecture is as complicit as any. This is a profession swarming with “white moderates more devoted to order than to justice,” to quote everyone’s favorite civil rights leader, Dr. King. Now the field is faced with another critical moment to act in accordance with justice over order. It is not clear if we will make the right choice.

When it comes to violence against black people in America, history repeats itself so precisely that it can be hard to place any given moment into context. The script has shown us that the violence inherent in the economic and cultural deconstruction of black neighborhoods, usually under the pretense of economic development, precipitates the displacement of living communities, accelerates inequities, amplifies the fears of white society, and makes acceptable the use of force by police to protect even the slightest inconvenience of land and property.

The design professions should know that our colleagues are hurting. Back in June 1968, when America’s cities were again the site of protest, civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. spoke before the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects, a gathering of nearly all white men. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,” he told them. “You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

We failed to respond, and now we are here, again. Alas, the response now, as it was then, is likely to be woefully short of a material change demanded from those most impacted by our work.   

It is essential to name the manner in which our profession’s silence is assent. In its purest form, we have an obligation to protect the people’s health, safety, and welfare in and through the spaces we design. This commitment extends beyond the boundary of our buildings and landscapes and into the public realm. We narrow and neglect these commitments often on the backs of the perpetually marginalized and to the detriment of the field. Architecture has been the backdrop and often the instigator for violence on black bodies throughout this nation’s history. This is the case, in large part, because white America has found it all too easy to transpose its capital and beliefs into physical space, allowing the architecture to covertly project power in the name of white supremacy without the burden of having to sustain the unpleasant acts of overt racism themselves.

With this simple deed, we’ve restricted the freedom of movement to those deemed unworthy by the declaration of the built environment — and thus authorized countless acts of violence in the name of protecting land, property and the public realm.

For example: In 2019, Minneapolis approved the extension of CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) practices for all new developments. While CPTED principles are said to help discourage crime by orienting building windows and entrances to aid in providing “eyes on the street” that monitor activity, in practice this strategy can end up serving the same suppressive purpose as stop-and-frisk policing — to assure that anyone considered suspicious is made to feel uncomfortable. The problem is when you are black in this country, you live daily with the heavy weight of the world’s distrust on your shoulders. In a city like Minneapolis, whose police officers used force against black people at a rate at least seven times that of white residents, such design practices could help create the very conditions that led to Mr. Floyd’s murder.

America has never fully recognized racism as a complex cooperative system dependent upon its institutions — academic, political, commercial, and otherwise — to resign themselves to complicity. As a result, the design profession, like many others, has been unable to find a reason to acknowledge the compounding effects of each act of violence on the psyche of Black America. The rebellion you see across our country is fundamentally rooted in this conflict, rooted in the notion that black lives are deemed disposable in white society, justified solely for the act of being — in place.

For some, there will be an impulse to equate property loss to the loss of life. Don’t.

For others, there will be an instinct that swells from the pits of whiteness to declare the fury and rage of the protesters as invalid because the disorder on the streets looks like “chaos,” not dissent.

To those challenging the credibility of this mass movement, I urge you to remember that nearly every riot you’ve ever heard of, starting with the American Revolution, was preceded by the murder of black people and escalated by an oppressive militarized force. We have seen throughout our history that to label an uprising as a riot is in itself a declaration of authorization that serves to assuage the white moderate, to justify the expansion of state-sanctioned violence on its people, and to mask the manifest rage of black and brown people pleading for justice in the face of a dispassionate system.

The first step towards dismantling unjust systems is to clearly articulate a direction out of our malaise and into action. Here is the start to a path forward through the efforts of Design Justice and in alignment with the demands of the Movement for Black Lives.

  • Cities and towns should reallocate funds supporting police departments and reinvest in the critical needs of disinherited neighborhoods and communities. Anyone who has worked with marginalized communities knows of multiple projects unable to find footing due to the lack of investment and resources. The design profession must be an actor in the visioning of these spaces.  
  • Cease all efforts to implement defensible space and CPTED crime prevention through environmental design tactics that often promote unwarranted interaction with the police.
  • Architects should stop supporting the carceral state through the design of prisons, jails, and police stations. All of these spaces inflict harm and extraction on black bodies far beyond that of other communities.
  • Stop using area mean income, or AMI, to determine “affordability” in our communities. Instead root the distribution of state and federal resources in a measure that reflects the extraction of generational wealth from black communities.
  • Advocate for policies and procedures that support a genuinely accessible public realm, free from embedded oppression.
  • Ensure communities’ self-determination through an established procedure that incorporates community voice in process and community benefits agreements in action for all publicly accountable projects.
  • Detangle our contractual relationships with power and capital to better serve neighborhoods and communities from a position of service and not from a place of extraction, freeing ourselves from the fee-for-service model and building power through black and brown development of the built environment.
  • Invest in and secure the place-keeping of black cultural spaces.
  • Redesign our design training and licensing efforts to reflect the history of spatial injustice and build new measures to ground our work in service of liberating spaces.

The design profession has a role to play in the short- and long-term outcomes of justice, and we would be wise to revisit our past to find direction. We must act swiftly and sustain our efforts to reconstitute our profession as a co-conspirator to justice. Justice requires us to repair a past of inequity, to make whole those subjected to oppression in the present, and to remove barriers to progress in the future.

One day it will inevitably be one of us — the ones you deem palatable for your committees, boardrooms, and Ivy League schools — who becomes a victim of police violence. You will never know the prevailing grief of a people destined to mourn our loved ones before they are gone because we refuse to seek justice before trauma. Where will you stand when it’s one of your “diversity hires” left bloodied and breathless in the street?

This is as much a call to action as it is an act of healing. Join the Design Justice movement. Don’t let this become another moment of inaction when our nation so clearly needs us to stand for, fight for, and build a just future.

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How America’s ‘Bedlam’ Became Jails and Streets

Todd slams his phone on the ground, cracks it in pieces, then picks it up and throws it again. Frustration pours out of him like flames.

Todd has HIV, and a long history of depression and manic symptoms; after a stint at the L.A. County Hospital a year earlier, he’s been living on the streets of Los Angeles. He’s been promised an apartment of his own, a months-long process arranged by a case worker. But there’s a new snag: He’s just been told that he’ll “hopefully” be able to get the keys within a few days. They were just waiting for the current owners of the unit to finalize the move.

“It makes no sense to me,” he yells. “You have somebody sleeping on the goddamn sidewalk when he’s got a f—ing apartment?” Later, more troubles: Todd is charged with a minor offense and loses his housing after a three-month jail sentence.

Todd is one of the estimated 350,000 people in the U.S. with severe mental illness who are also experiencing homelessness, 20,000 of whom can be found in Los Angeles. His story, and others like his, form the backbone of psychiatrist and filmmaker Kenneth Rosenberg’s new documentary Bedlam, which tracks the rise and fall of mental health institutions in the U.S. and the subsequent criminalization of the country’s most vulnerable.

The film, which premiered on PBS this week as part of the network’s Independent Lens series and is streaming online until May 12, is based on Rosenberg’s book, also called Bedlam; both projects were drawn from seven years of research and reporting in L.A.’s hospitals, jails, and streets. The titles come from the nickname of Bethlem Royal Hospital, a pioneering — and notorious — London asylum that opened in 1403. Today, the word is synonymous with uproar and confusion, and asylums are gone.  Insead, the largest facilities to house the mentally ill in the U.S. are urban jails: Los Angeles’ Twin Towers, Chicago’s Cook County Jail and New York’s Riker’s Island.

Rosenberg has personal stakes in this history. His sister Merle struggled with schizophrenia for three decades, while their parents struggled to confront and accept her illness. Rosenberg, who was in charge of Merle’s care after his parents passed, found her dead in her bedroom at the age of 55. Her illness led him to become a psychiatrist; the failures of the profession, and the lack of progress made in managing cases like hers, inspired him to make the film.

“We can’t fix something that we can’t face,” Rosenberg says.

To chronicle those failures, Rosenberg guides viewers through the history of the U.S.’s mental illness treatment. Like another troubled American institution — public housing, the subject of this recent PBS documentary — the story begins with a well-meaning plan to build government-funded shelter for vulnerable populations. What follows is disinvestment, decline, demolition and denial.

In the 1950s, more than half a million American patients were held in a vast network of psychiatric hospitals. They provided necessary mental health care, Rosenberg says, but the conditions were inhumane; shutting down these “human warehouses” became a goal of the postwar era. John F. Kennedy, who took office in 1961, provided another push for reform — his sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was lobotomized for what we’d now call bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and lived the remainder of her life in a mental institution. Soon before his assassination, Kennedy signed an act to open hundreds of federally funded community health facilities, meant as preventive alternatives to hospitalization. But when Ronald Reagan became president in the 1980s, he tried to push the responsibility back to the states.

“We built asylums and they were pretty dreadful, or they became pretty dreadful,” said Rosenberg. “Then we decided — for good reason — that we wanted to get rid of the asylums. But we didn’t replace them with something better. We just tore them down.”

Over the course of the late 20th century, psychiatric hospitals emptied out about 1.4 million of their patients in a process of de-institutionalization. But most didn’t land on their feet. “What happened is that people weren’t de-institutionalized, they were trans-institutionalized,” said Rosenberg. “They went from one institution to another: from the asylums to the jails, and the streets.”

Many patients Rosenberg follows also find themselves in the L.A. County Hospital, where overworked staff counsel, restrain, and try to treat them. Todd thrashes and lashes out at staff; after 20 years in jail, being bound to a bed in a hospital cell, surrounded by police officers, feels no different, he said.

But after being discharged, relief can be fleeting, even for those who have stable housing. “Unfortunately, once patients leave our hospital, there’s really little we can do,“ says one doctor. “We can’t keep people detained for long periods of time.”

For cities, the fallout of this exodus is clear. California, which led the charge in emptying its hospitals of patients, is now afflicted with some of the highest homelessness rates in the country. Not all unhoused people are mentally ill — estimates range from a quarter to more than a third —  but those who are struggle to keep up with medication, and have encounters with law enforcement that can escalate.

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” says an ER psychiatrist identified only as Dr. McGhee, who explains her decision to quit working with mentally ill patients at the L.A. County Hospital. “The way we treat mentally ill in this country is insane.”

Because of these glaring institutional gaps, Rosenberg says that the responsibility of caring for the mentally ill often falls on their families, perhaps more so than for any other disease. And it’s the families in the film that offer the shiniest glimmers of hope, short-lived as they may be.

Patrisse Cullors, who’s known as one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter movement, helps care for her brother, Monte. He’s sweet and sensitive — “I just want to live and be happy and just be left alone,” he says in the film — but Cullors fears that Monte will be hurt by police during a manic episode.

Racial discrimination compounds the endless jail-to-streets merry-go-round. When two people display the same symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, “the person of color gets a worse diagnosis, a worse prognosis, and a worse disposition,” says Rosenberg. “Meaning they go to jail instead of a hospital.”

One month after Cullors helps lead the charge to replace a men’s jail in L.A. with a mental health hospital, Monte stops taking his medicine, and turns psychotic; after a stint in a private hospital, he’s discharged; after another psychotic break, he’s on the streets.

“The movement continues, but the reality really sucks,” said Rosenberg.

The book and film were completed before the coronavirus crisis arrived, but Rosenberg says that the pandemic stands to have serious long-term mental health impacts — he fears that the isolation and anxiety will open people up to problems that may have laid dormant otherwise. But the crisis may also underline the importance of preventative public health care.

“You realize now more than ever that health of the entire world affects our own personal health — that’s true with mental illness as well,” he said. “If we have a segment of our society that we abandon, it hurts us economically and socially and psychologically.”

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How America Has Racialized Medicine During Epidemics

Just a month ago, there was chatter about how African Americans have a unique racial immunity to the novel coronavirus. Now that data is emerging that African Americans are actually contracting Covid-19 at alarming rates, the new chatter is just the opposite: that African Americans instead have a unique racial vulnerability to it. While there are many potential good explanations for this disparity, including racism in the health care system, much of the focus has been instead on black people’s behaviors as the cause. In a recent press conference, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, an African American, addressed the disparity in black deaths by scolding black people to “step up” their social distancing game while chiding them about avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

There is unfortunately a long, sordid history in the medical world of holding black people responsible for poor health outcomes, despite the racial discrimination they have encountered in doctor’s offices and hospitals. Connecticut College gender and women’s studies professor Mab Segrest explores this history in her new book, “Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum.”

The asylum in the title is the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in Milledgeville, Georgia, (today called the Central State Hospital) which opened in 1841 and became the largest mental health institution in the world in the 1960s before shuttering in 2010 (though one remaining building from its mammoth 2,000-acre plot still takes some patients from jails and prisons).

Segrest explores how the hospital’s chief superintendent in the 1880s, Theophilus O. Powell, began developing medical theories that became foundational for U.S. disease outbreak response policies. His ideas also became the underpinning for theories on innate racial vulnerability — that black people are culturally, intellectually, and genetically inferior — as a way of explaining racially disparate health outcomes. When the black patient population began escalating in the Milledgeville Asylum in the late 19th century, Powell said emancipation was driving African Americans insane, because they no longer had access to what was then considered “the hygienic effects of slavery.”

Because doctors were focusing on this emancipation theory, they failed to recognize and respond to the other growing epidemics of tuberculosis and pellagra in the asylum — disease outbreaks for which Powell had no effective answer. His idea that sicknesses were based on innate racialized hygiene and heredity would eventually ignite some of the most dangerous medical ideas in the world — ideas that would claim the lives of millions of African Americans, Jews, and other people of color in the U.S. and abroad.

CityLab spoke with Segrest about her book and how the work of Powell at the Milledgeville Asylum is connected to how medical and government leaders have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic today. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.  

What are some of the most obvious patterns you see today that ring similar to what happened in the Milledgeville Asylum in the late 19th century?

The pattern that I see emerging today goes back to the oldest antebellum ideas of blaming black people. Before the Civil War they said that slavery was good for the slaves, that the white master was looking out for them. Then after the Civil War, the line became to blame what white people were doing — like lynching and stealing the vote and impoverishing people — on emancipation.

In 1895, all of the [mental health institution] superintendents from the South got together for one of their annual meetings, and the question they asked at was, “Is emancipation prejudicial for the Negro?” A remarkable question for the psychiatrists to be asking, and they all answered yes, because slavery was so “hygienic.” Anything that happened to black people after emancipation was their fault because they should have stayed slaves basically. So this pattern of blaming the victim then is very deeply set.  

What did these doctors miss, in terms of cures and treatment, by focusing on race and behaviors?

I found when I looked at the records of the Georgia asylum that Superintendent Powell, as he wrote about degenerate populations, immoral people, and unfit people, he was at the same time presiding over multiple epidemics within his own institution that he wasn’t paying attention to. Because he really didn’t care about the germ theory of disease, although that had been around since 1882 when Robert Koch in Germany discovered the tubercle bacillus. And you might think that a superintendent who was alarmed at the rising rates of tuberculosis in his insane asylum for both black and white people, but particularly for black people, might want to be up on the latest research, but he wasn’t. He was more concerned with these very simplistic ideas like heredity and would claim that 90% of the folks in the asylum were there because of their bad families or hygiene.

By the turn of the century, half the cases of TB were being contracted within the asylum itself. So this man at one point could blame vulnerable people for being immoral and degenerate and in danger of infecting the rest of the world and the rest of the country. And at the same time, the thing he was really responsible for, which was the health of the people under his care, he completely neglected. So there was an epidemic of tuberculosis and also an epidemic of pellagra, which blossomed all over the South in the early 20th century.

Covid-19 is exacerbated by environmental injustice, pollution, and food insecurity. What parallels do you see there?

Tuberculosis was airborne, not hereditary. Pellagra turned out to be nutritional, which meant that the asylum was starving its people. A wonderful doctor from the U.S. Public Health Service, one of the public health heroes in my book, was asked to come to the asylum by the administrators because they had people starting to die in huge numbers from pellagra, which was a dreadful wasting disease. Goldberger had a sense that the disease might be nutritional. The people at the asylum said, “Oh no, no, no, no, we all eat the same thing.” Well, he just was very empirical. He just followed them through the cafeteria line and he saw who got what [food]. He saw the doctors, the superintendents, the nurses and the white people — I mean he just saw the hierarchies of food distribution.

So he thought to himself, “Who doesn’t get pellagra? The well-to-do.” So, he said, “Well, I’m going to take two wards and I’m going to feed them the diet of the well-to-do.” He took a black woman’s ward and a white woman’s ward, and he fed them the diet of the well-to-do for six months. None of them got sick. He proved that if you feed people well, you can prevent the disease.

What becomes the ultimate consequence of how race became essentialized in diagnoses and treatments, in terms of public health policy today?

Superintendent Powell becomes very influential in the medical world. He became the president of the precursor to the American Psychiatric Association [the American Medico-Psychological Association] in 1897. He’s really elevated in his profession. And he’s forwarding these ideas of degeneracy and slavery’s hygienic effects, which start to roll over into the eugenics movement, which starts in Europe, but lands in 1903 in the United States.

Some of the eugenics leaders go to the Carnegie Foundation and get money to set up the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York to start promoting eugenics in the United States. Because if you said that the problem is population — if the problem is tubercle bacillus then you don’t put people in overcrowded conditions. If the problem is the coronavirus, then you do social distancing, you wash your hands and you look like hell to get a vaccine for it. But if the problem is degenerate populations then you have to eliminate those degenerate populations.

So we started sterilization, and sterilization after the 1930s and 1940s was really rampant in these state institutions set up for mental illness and the so-called feeble-minded. And Hitler is paying attention in the 1920s and 1930s so they started sterilizing people. Then in 1939 they went beyond sterilization to elimination of people and started the Aktion T4 program, which was the first Nazi extermination program aimed at disabled people. They just cleared out the hospitals and mental hospitals and figured out a gas chamber for them. That was the beginning of Nazi extermination. These ideas have really deep roots and extreme consequences.  

So you see a through line from how Superintendent Powell handled disease outbreaks to how the White House is handling the Covid-19 pandemic now?

Well, today we have doctors, medical people, nurses who are trying to give us the best information about how to keep everybody safe when we have no remedy for it and no immunity. The best we can come up with is social distancing, washing our hands — these practices that are flattening the curve, as we’ve been taught by Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. Well Dr. Fauci is now having his life threatened for contradicting Trump. And Trump is busy blaming people and deflecting.

It’s a kind of willful ignorance, which was the same thing that Dr. Powell had. He didn’t study the tubercle bacillus, he didn’t need to know that because he knew you could just blame people for it. We’ve had this information from China from January on. The president has been warned of it from January on. He’s denied it, he’s deflected it. And now the United States has the highest rates of infection of any in the world, which was so tragically unnecessary. (Editor’s note: The U.S. has the highest number of confirmed deaths in the world as of April 13, although not the highest rate deaths per capita. Rates of confirmed infection are also being tracked, but remain imprecise due to testing limitations.) And now we’re seeing some of the actual racial demographics come out that black people are disproportionately being affected. And that is just the oldest story in this country.

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Coronavirus Exposes How Bad America’s Homework Gap Really Is

Brooke Young was driving by the library she manages in Salt Lake City when she saw two teens huddled by the staff door trying to access the building’s free Wi-Fi on their phones. The county, like several others across the U.S., had shut down all public facilities, including libraries, to curb the spread of coronavirus. And Utah Governor Gary Herbet had announced a “soft closure” of all K-12 public schools, with the option for districts to resume class online.

But getting online for class will be hard for kids in Young’s Glendale neighborhood, where residents are largely immigrant, of lower income, or part of the refugee community. “We’re in a historically underserved community, and it has the lowest rate of internet-at-home in the city,” she says. Many students would typically do their homework at the library. With libraries closed, both the Wi-Fi inside and the hotspot devices they lend out are no longer available.

Tens of millions of public schools students in the U.S. are out of class this week due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Education Week. At least 40 states enacted statewide closures, and individual school districts in the remaining states have also announced shutdowns. Most schools are saying they will be closed for at least two weeks; Kansas became the first state to order its schools not to reopen for the remainder of the academic year.

For many of the more than 100,000 schools closed, teachers are moving their classes online. But not all students can take advantage because of the lack of technology at home, a disparity known as the homework gap. Some 15% of households with school-age children don’t have internet at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 census data. And in a separate 2018 survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, 1 in 5 teens told Pew researchers that they often or sometimes can’t complete assignments because they don’t have reliable access to the internet or a computer. Both reports found that affected students are more likely to be from low-income and minority families.

Without a sound contingency plan to get all students connected, already-disadvantaged youth will fall even further behind over the next several weeks, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “The inequities in all our education systems are going to be even worse,” she says. “The kids whose families do have internet connection are going to have at least some learning continuing during this period, and the kids who don’t won’t.”

It’s not just about taking online classes: With libraries and recreation centers closed, and seating restricted at cafes and restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi, students miss out on a host of online resources that can at least partially help make up for missed school days.

The disparity speaks to the larger digital divide in the U.S., the impact of which is now exacerbated by waves of business and public-space closures, and by officials’ urges for residents to stay home. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans lack fixed broadband access simply because their neighborhoods don’t have the physical infrastructure to connect, though one report argues that because of faulty metrics, the true number may be more than double the official figure.

And 2017 data from the Department of Commerce shows that some 22 million households don’t have internet because they can’t afford it or don’t need it. Of those, 6 million households say it’s too expensive, and a quarter of those have school-age children at home.

CityLab mapped this lack of internet access by school district, based on 2015 census data:

(Marie Patino)

One of the least-connected school districts on this map is the rural Red Mesa Unified District in Arizona, where the majority of students are Native American. More than 80% — nearly 1,700 households — don’t have internet access, according to 2015 census data. But it’s not just a problem for rural communities: In Laredo Independent School District in the city of Laredo, Texas, nearly 14,000 households, or 53%, don’t have internet access.

In fact, NDIA estimates that some 15 million Americans without internet access live in urban and suburban communities, making up the majority of the digitally disconnected. And whereas rural communities lack adequate physical infrastructure to access the internet, the challenge among poor urban families is more often broadband adoption.

Some families rely only on their smartphones and data plans. “It’s not that the mobile phone is superior; it’s that you have to choose,” Siefer says. “And if your budget is already having a hard time with any service plans, you’re going to choose the one that can go with you.” The 2018 Pew survey found that 1 in 4 teens in households making less than $30,000 don’t have a computer at home. But even one computer may not be enough to be shared among parents and their kids.

Filling digital gaps

With shutdowns expected to drag on for weeks, if not months, broadband and telecommunication companies have significantly expanded access to their services as part of the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Both Charter and Comcast are opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots for public use and offering free plans to new customers in low-income households or who live with students. “Kudos to the broadband providers stepping up to help during this time,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement, though she urged the agency to go further and make hotspot loans available to all students.

Education officials and teachers, meanwhile, are scrambling. Philadelphia announced Wednesday that its school district won’t offer remote learning, with superintendent William R. Hite Jr. specifically citing inequity as the main reason. The majority of the district’s 200,000 public school students come from low-income families. “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” he said at a news conference.

Some districts are better prepared than others to offer distance learning. In Kansas City, Kansas, schools will begin handing out devices acquired from their ongoing partnership with Sprint through its 1 Million Project. “We’re going to doing some bookkeeping, making sure that they’re all charged and ready for pickup,” says superintendent Charles Foust. Families who need internet can also pick up hotspot devices and get free service through the internet provider Spectrum.

In South Bend, Indiana, officials are turning 20 unused school buses into traveling hotspots and will send them to more than 30 different sites every day except Sunday. Students can access the Wi-Fi within 300 feet of one — bus drivers will stop near parks and other open spaces — using the Chromebooks schools handed out earlier in the year.

Teachers in other cities have sent kids home with packets and workbooks while officials try to procure the necessary devices. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest public school system, 300,000 students lack electronic devices at home. The education department is hoping to purchase and deliver at least 25,000 iPads through a partnership with Apple, while also training its 80,000 teachers on how to make virtual lesson plans.

Some districts are still trying to figure out who needs help. The nonprofit Connect For Good provides discounted and sometimes-free refurbished devices to low-income families in Kansas City, Missouri. CEO Tom Esselman says they need to prioritize families with children, but first, they have to figure out who they are.

“Not just cities, but also individual school districts and administrators have not taken seriously the issue of how many families are really truly affected by the lack of access,” he says.

Currently the Kansas City chapter of NDIA has set up a form on its website asking people to describe what exactly they need. The group Leanlab Education has also sent out a survey tool for schools to start collecting data on things like the number of children, the level of internet access, and the number of devices each family has. The first report with aggregated data is set to come out Monday and will help coalition members like Esselman better coordinate their efforts.

Esselman is frustrated that it took a pandemic to expose how critical digital inclusion is when advocates like him have been trying to raise awareness for at least the last five years.

“We’ve said from day one that Wi-Fi connectivity should be viewed the same as electricity and running water, but because of the economic and commercial implications, we felt like we were years away from that,” he says. “But, oh boy, this crisis is making it appear now why we might get there sooner than later.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the location of the 20 free Wi-Fi buses. It is South Bend, Indiana.

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Where America’s Climate Migrants Will Go As Sea Level Rises

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through Louisiana in 2005, cities like Houston, Dallas, and Baton Rouge took in hundreds of thousands of displaced residents—many of whom eventually stayed in those cities a year later. Where evacuees have moved since hasn’t been closely tracked, but data from those initial relocations are helping researchers predict how sea level rise might drive migration patterns in the future.

Climate experts expect some 13 million coastal residents in the U.S. to be displaced by the end of this century. A new PLOS One study gives some indication of where climate migrants might go.

“A lot of cities not at risk of sea of level rise will experience the effect of it,” says Bistra Dilkina, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, who led the study. “This will require an adjustment in terms of the [increased] demand on the cities’ infrastructure.”

Dilkina and her team used migration data from the Internal Revenue Service to analyze how people moved across the U.S. between 2004 and 2014. Movement from seven Katrina and Rita-affected counties to unaffected counties between 2005 and 2006 was categorized as climate-driven migration. Researchers then combined that analysis with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projections on the effects of sea level rise on coastal counties, and trained a machine-learning model to predict where coastal populations will move when forced to leave their homes—and how that, in turn, affects the migration of non-coastal residents.

Blue indicates counties where flooding will displace residents if sea levels rise by six feet by 2100. Counties in shades of pink and red will see higher-than-average migration, with the darker shades representing larger population increases. (PLOS One)

In the worst-case scenario, in which sea levels rise by six feet by 2100, the resulting map shows portions of almost all counties on the East and West Coasts, and along the Gulf of Mexico, under water. It also shows that cities closest to the flood-prone areas, and that aren’t typically attractive destinations for newcomers, could see a higher-than-average influx of migrants. In Florida, for example, that means people may increasingly move to the shrinking core of the peninsula as the coastlines disappear into the ocean. Demographer Mathew Hauer, whose climate migration research was a building block for Dikina’s, explained in Audubon Magazine that people tend to move to familiar places nearby, where they might already have friends, family, or some other support network. People may also flock to major urban centers like Dallas and Houston, which the model predicts will absorb the most migrants, and drive up the pace of urbanization.

In the short to medium term, cities on the receiving end will likely face a housing crunch, according to Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. He points to the 2018 wildfire that displaced some 50,000 residents in and around the city of Paradise, California. “It’s increased the property values of neighboring towns,” he says. One such town is Chico, which became the top refuge destination and turned into a boomtown almost overnight. By the end of that year, home sales doubled and housing prices jumped 21 percent, compared to December 2017.

In the long term, “that’s going to lead to displacement, housing pressure, and probably even to homelessness among people who are being indirectly forced out by the people moving in,” Keenan says—a phenomenon he calls “climate gentrification.”

Those with the means to move will likely relocate to another big city away from the coast, in search of comparable or better economic opportunities, according to the latest study. Many may end up moving to the suburbs in the Midwest, where the model shows a larger-than-average influx of migrants compared to historic trends.

Dilkina is careful to describe the study as only an “approximation” of how sea level change might drive migration patterns, not a precise picture of where people will actually move. “There’s still a lot of need for understanding different drivers and externalities,” she says, adding that her team will be presenting their results at various meetings and conferences with other academics who may want to collaborate. “We are setting up a model to be improved as we go.”

For one thing, sea level rise is just one effect of climate change. Heat waves will drive people north—and could make make cities like Duluth and Buffalo “climate havens.” Urban flooding will reshuffle populations within a city. And extreme storms will move people in yet other ways. Meanwhile, as in Paradise, “forest fires are going to have dramatic effects on the West Coast, including the Pacific Northwest,” says Keenan. “All of those things are changing land economics, housing economics, and public finance.”

Whether researchers can paint a precise picture of future migration patterns will require better—and more explicit—metrics for measuring how and why people move, and a better understanding of social behavior overall, says Keenan. Currently, migration data is both delayed and indirectly collected via proxies like Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) assistance applications and address changes submitted to the IRS and the post office.

Precision aside, though, Keenan thinks the value of this kind of study lies in the messaging. The map presents a “minimal threshold of the amount of people that would potentially be on the move,” he says. Socioeconomic factors—where companies create employment opportunities, who has the means to move, and how racial discrimination keeps people out, for example—will also play a role in dictating how many people move, and to where.

At the very least, it will alert policymakers to start analyzing current infrastructure investments and plan for the long term. “So if we’re going to build a road,” he says, “is this for today’s population of is this for tomorrow’s population?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story overstated the assessment of blue regions on the climate migration map. They are counties where flooding is likely to displace residents if sea level rises by six feet by 2100.

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Denser Housing Is Gaining Traction on America’s East Coast

For the past few years, cities and states on the West Coast have led the charge to build more dense housing and arrest fast-rising rents. Oregon passed the first-ever statewide law legalizing duplex homes in most cities, while California has debated one bill after another to increase the allowable housing near transit.

The East Coast has been slower to pick up on density as a solution to soaring costs for renters and home-buyers. But that may change in the new year. Late in December, Virginia became the first eastern state to see a proposal to prohibit bans on duplex housing across the state, among other housing fixes. Not to be outdone, Maryland will weigh a upzoning bill in 2020, plus a sweeping experiment to build European-style social housing across the state.

Next week, Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart will introduce a suite of housing bills to expand rights for renters and options for buyers. This legislative “Homes for All” package would attack the affordability crisis on three fronts: by lifting zoning restrictions on new housing, generating a fund for public housing, and establishing new rights for tenants.

“What we’re really trying to convey is that the housing affordability crisis is so deep and so acute, that you can’t begin to solve it with just one solution,” Stewart says. “It’s time for the Maryland General Assembly’s response on housing to meet the scale of the problem.”

Stewart, who represents Montgomery County, a largely affluent suburban area outside Washington, D.C., was elected to office in 2019 in part on a pledge to address the high cost of housing and lack of so-called middle housing options. The subject is divisive locally: While Montgomery County council members voted unanimously to build 10,000 more housing units by 2030, the county’s executive, Marc Elrhich, opposed the resolution.

With the Homes for All bills, Stewart says he is focusing on justice and equity as an explicit goal of zoning reform.

“For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policy.”

Maryland’s upzoning bill takes a different tack from the law recently introduced by Virginia House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, which would legalize duplexes across the commonwealth. Instead of a blanket upzoning, Stewart has opted for a more tailored approach. His bill would increase the legally permissible density of housing only in areas with relatively high incomes, concentration of jobs, or access to public transit. It would also raise taxes to fund thousands of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing.

While both the Virginia and Maryland bills are the work of suburban D.C. representatives—officials separated by only about 30 miles—the two bills show how widely housing strategies may vary. Now lawmakers will weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The D.C. area, including Montgomery County, faces an acute shortage of affordable and market-rate homes. A report from the Urban Institute finds that the region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030 in order to meet its pent-up housing need. Yet other parts of Maryland struggle with different housing crises, from sky-high vacancy rates and negative home values in Baltimore to exclusionary restrictions that freeze out new buyers on the Eastern Shore. Maryland is a microcosm for America.

“We’ve got Appalachia, the South, the water, a major Northeast city, affluence, poverty, immigrants,” Stewart says. “It’s tough to have a one-size-fits-all bill, especially with something as tough as housing policy.”

Bringing together a broad, durable pro-housing coalition is critical to pass any housing reforms, he adds. He designed his bill to appeal to tenants’ rights activist, market-oriented supply-siders, and socialist public housing champions (or PHIMBYs) alike.

The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 would legalize a wide array of multifamily homes, including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses. The bill would preempt local restrictive zoning codes in census tracts that meet certain criteria for jobs, transit access, and median household income. Stewart’s bill uses the Opportunity Atlas, a demographic mapping project by economists at Harvard University and Brown University with the U.S. Census Bureau, as a guide for setting parameters for neighborhood opportunity.

For census tracts in Maryland that meet the opportunity standards, local governments must permit at least one of each kind of middle-housing option in single family home–zoned areas, and they must legalize duplexes by right. The bill doesn’t prohibit the construction of single-family homes; instead, it repeals local bans on duplexes and other multifamily home options.

Further, the bill, whose precise legal language is still being drafted, would require local governments to ensure that new development does not lead to any net loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The bill leaves it to local governments to regulate other land-use codes, including property sizes and setbacks. In wouldn’t affect rural areas or low-income places with less opportunity.

A second bill, the Social Housing Act of 2020, would broadly fund and encourage the construction of new social housing statewide. This ambitious proposal could have enormous ramifications for the Old Line State.The fundamentals of his new bill are simple: publicly owned, permanently affordable, accessible homes, built with unionized labor, near public transit, and made available to a variety of income levels.

This kind of social housing, based on the Vienna model, is rare in the U.S.—there are maybe 600,000 to 750,000 units, fewer even than the federally capped figure for public housing. As far as proposals for social housing go, possibly only the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comes close.

“It sounds almost utopian to an American’s ear,” Stewart says. “But it’s very mundane in Europe.”

The Social Housing Act ams to create thousands of these units in Maryland. In order to fund these homes, the bill would tweak the state’s real-estate transfer taxes to include a new 0.75 percent tax for properties that sell for $1 million or more. The bill would also authorize a new $75 fee for real-estate notices, including trusts, covenants, and other documents (but not sales). It’s unclear yet how many public-housing units this new purse would actually subsidize, and some details about the funding and financing of the units may change as the bill’s likely impact is audited.

Building affordable housing is a challenge in Maryland. Historically, the state has spent a “cartoonishly low amount out of its Housing Trust Fund,” according to Stewart. From 1992 through fiscal year 2018, Maryland’s fund has received $49 million; in D.C., a similar housing production trust fund received nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2018 alone, even though the District’s population is 10 times smaller than that of Maryland.

The final plank of the Homes for All package, the Tenant Protection Act of 2020, is a grab-bag of new rights for tenants. Some of the provisions would implement protections available to tenants in California and New York, while others would expand renters’ rights in Montgomery County to cover the entire state.

For example, the law would allow Maryland tenants to leave a lease early if the landlord can’t or won’t fix defects, pests, or mold. It expands the rights of victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to terminate a lease early to include victims of stalking and other vulnerable renters—and it makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for calling the police after suffering these crimes. Maryland landlords currently have 45 days to return a security deposit; if this law passes, they’ll have 30 days instead. Plus, landlords will have to submit itemized receipts for any deductions.

“[The bill] takes some of our existing laws and brings them to the next level, giving the tenant the ability to be their own best advocate,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

Housing reforms face long odds, thanks in part to the diverse groups that tend to step up to face them down. The opposition brings together NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to share the wealth, socialist-types who don’t support market-rate developers, and racists who want to preserve exclusive white communities.

While zoning reformers can claim a few victories now, the YIMBY movement is still fractious, a challenge for housing affordability on both coasts. Stewart says that he hopes to overcome the “balkanization on the left on housing” by aiming wide.

“I’ve gotten frustrated by the in-fighting between those who think we should most principally focus on zoning laws and those who want to focus on renters’ rights,” Stewart says. “We can do all those things together.”

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CityLab Daily: America After Climate Change, Mapped

What We’re Following

At last: You don’t have to use too much imagination to predict the fundamental weather impacts of climate change in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century. Estimates show the temperature will increase an average of 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to more extreme weather events, from heatwaves to wildfires to floods.

But lots of other potential impacts are less inevitable, according to Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s

(McHarg Center)

While the broad takeaways are unsurprisingly dire, there is reason for some optimism that ambitious policy proposals could make a difference. “We get the future we build for ourselves,” Fleming tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder. Read her story: America After Climate Change, Mapped

Andrew Small


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“Mayors for Mike”: How Bloomberg’s money built a 2020 political network (New York Times)

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Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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America After Climate Change, Mapped

In 100 years, what will a United States transformed by climate change look like? At this point, you don’t have to use much imagination to predict what’s coming: Temperatures will continue to climb; sea levels will continue to rise. And, by the 2060s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that global migration patterns will bring 100 million new people into the country, who will settle from coast to coast.

Almost everything else about the climate of tomorrow and the nation’s ability to survive it is less inevitable, however, says Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. “There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” he said. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”

With other researchers from the McHarg Center, he designed a series of maps of the U.S. for an online collection dubbed The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal. The website use a variety of projected and current data sources to sketch out the country’s possible fate, displaying its geography in economic, ecological, agricultural, and ideological terms. Climate models vary, as do timelines and confidence intervals for each map. But collectively, Fleming says the images provide visual evidence that it’s not too late for grand interventions to make a fundamental difference. Ambitious proposals like the Green New Deal—which involves a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s energy and building infrastructure—could be the key, he said.

“By the end of 21st century, the temperature will increase an average 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

The broad takeaways are dire, as usual. Heat-related deaths in the southern U.S. could grow—but so could cold-related deaths in northern areas. Workers exposed to outdoor temperatures in Texas and the Gulf Coast would be most at risk for heat-related deaths, but everyone’s risk could be heightened.

The southern U.S. can expect to see spikes in climate-related mortality. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

According to GDP projections through 2099, more than three quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit. “The losses are largest in the regions that are already poorer on average (Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic), increasing inequality as value transfers to the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes Region, and New England,” the report finds. Rural, non-coastal regions like Arkansas, where Fleming grew up, are often left out of serious conversations about climate change despite their dependence on crops and livestock that can be damaged by drought, heat, and heavy rains, along with the accompanying risk of soil erosion.

“Economic damage is considered as the combined value of market and non-market damage across the agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor sectors.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

No corner of the U.S. will be spared by the effects of climate change: Sea-level rise could displace up to 13.1 million people by the end of the 21st century. But adaptations will have to look different everywhere, Fleming said. High-poverty Mississippi will contend with coastal flooding, variations in agriculture viability, and huge energy expenditure demands as a result of extreme heat. As a result, many residents could become climate migrants. In Manhattan, the most urgent concern may be flooding; up by the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the threats center around industry and farming. Northern cities like Duluth and Buffalo may indeed transform into some form of “climate refuge,” thanks to abundant fresh water and cooler temperatures. But they could also be vulnerable to other, less desirable impacts from mass migration.

“We both can and have to expand the definition of frontline community,” said Fleming.

(Courtesy McHarg Center)

An estimated 100 million people will migrate into and around the country seeking refuge from the various climate impacts. And as they do, more energy resources, water, and density will be needed. “Most demographers expect an increasing share of these people to live in major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Phoenix,” the project reads. To accommodate them in high-density places like New York City, we’ll need 12 new NYC-sized cities; the same population will require 68 lower-density places like Phoenix.

The planet-saving power of density. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

Such findings resonate with proposals like Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal for Public Housing, which calls for billions of investment in upgrading existing public housing stock and a nationwide emphasis on building more dense, transit-friendly communities.

The sweeping scale of such proposals may seem daunting, especially given the current political climate, but the project makes a point of acknowledging America’s legacy of infrastructural transformation. There’s a “History of Big Ideas” map that traces earlier planning initiatives and mass mobilization efforts that are “[v]ariously inspiring and cautionary,” like the Garden City and Greenbelt projects and Tennessee Valley Authority of the original New Deal. We’ve done it before, it implies. We can do it again.

“These are things that the country can take on together if and when it decides to make the climate crisis the sort of generational investment it deserves to be,” said Fleming.

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